Q.Recently our 14-year-old son told us he is gay. Just yesterday, our 12-year-old told me he feels like a girl in a boy’s body. We are shocked, and my husband is having a hard time. How can we love and support our two boys? I think we may lose friends and family over this.
A. We’re discussing a very controversial topic. While 75% of LGTBQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer or questioning) students feel accepted by their peers, middle school students experience disproportionately higher levels of bullying and harassment from those peers who don’t accept them. I must suggest that it is not up to us to judge others. In my opinion, any such judging happens at a higher level with whatever God exists for you.
I also suggest that these kids are more likely to grow into fine young people and have successful lives if you love, guide and support them. Dr. Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, has done research that shows how families can learn to support LGBTQ children, even when the parents believe being transgender or gay is wrong. Her research found that under high levels of family rejection, a child is eight times more likely attempt suicide, six times more likely to report depression and three times more likely to have unprotected sex or to use drugs. Acceptance is important.
The Trevor Project is a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people (thetrevorproject.org), and there is an Austin chapter. I recommend you connect with them to learn more and perhaps volunteer.
I followed a conversation of several mothers on Facebook. These moms were open to letting their children dress however they wanted, and they shared tips on where to buy girls’ clothing for boys and boys’ clothing for girls. Some parents are comfortable raising their children in an androgynous way, allowing them to discover who they are for themselves in their own time. This may be accepted in some communities but not accepted in others.
In my volunteer work and my therapy practice, I’ve encountered many variations on sexual and gender identification. I’ve known adults who transitioned their gender with hormones and voice lessons and even surgery. Some were happy with their results, and some were not. For parents with similar situations to yours, I suggest the following:
- Stay calm and listen to your children, but be slow to act. Adopt a wait-and-see approach while responding with love and support. Ask your child how you can help them feel supported. Avoid trying to convince your children they aren’t who they think they are. Encourage dialogue. Listen without interrupting or arguing.
- Stand up for your children when they are mistreated. Find a supportive place of worship or community. Realize your children and their welfare are more important than what other people think or how they treat you.
- Join a family support organization such as PFLAG, Strong Family Alliance, Gender Spectrum or Gender Odyssey. Connect with other parents of LGBTQ children.
Thank you for bringing this important and thought-provoking question to our readers. It causes us all to think about not only how tolerant we are to diversity, but also how we react to the LGBTQ children and adults in our lives. What’s most important is to love and support your children through what can be a confusing time for them.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.